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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Shofar - Book Reviews

Words to God's Music: A New Book of Psalms , by Laurance Wieder. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003. 186 pp. $25.00.

What is the best way to interpret a sacred text? That question has baffled religious people for over two millennia. Answers have varied from simple ( peshat ) to complex ( derash ), from a literal reading to a sensus plenoir . When historical analysis brought embarrassment over explicit details or appeared trite, an allegorical interpretation either removed the offense or invested the text with profound meaning. Readers' interests have governed the specifics of interpretation, whether theological, literary, or historical.

The book of Psalms differs from much of the Bible in that it presents discourse from below, as it were. Like wisdom literature, this book arises from human analysis of reality rather than purporting to give a voice to the divine. Human laments and praise rise to the deity in Psalms, whereas the Bible usually has God address humans with command, challenge, and rebuke. Medieval Jewish interpreters struggled with this problem, some even venturing to label Psalms divine prophecy.

Regardless of how one decides to interpret a canonical text, the task consists of providing an adequate translation. Once again various modes of accomplishing this difficult task present themselves, stretching from the literal to paraphrase. Whether one chooses to let the language of the text dictate the content of the translation, as in formal correspondence, or to favor modern diction, as in dynamic equivalence, crossing the border that separates one language from another is no easy endeavor. Imagine, then, the added difficulty of trying to substitute a new poem for an ancient one, and then multiply that by one hundred and fifty. That is precisely what Laurance Wieder set out to accomplish. Small wonder he is just the third person to undertake such a daunting task.

Wieder understands his poetry as illumination of the ancient text, not its replacement. To prepare for this work, he immersed himself in the Hebrew text and in earlier attempts to put words to God's music. I am not sure where he got the title, but it evokes for me the majestic Psalm 19, with its allusion to celestial music. The probability that the first half of this psalm derives from Canaanite solar worship merely underlines its universal message.

The tone of the book is reverential, perhaps granting too much to Talmudic tradition about the sweet singer of Israel. Surely the claim that David came closer to being perfect in God's eyes than anyone else shortchanges Job, who received exceptional praise, at least in the prose. Wieder's aim is to revitalize ancient sentiment rather than to advance scholarly interpretation. His poetry should therefore be read as devotional literature.

Above all, Wieder teaches readers the necessity of lingering over words as a lover lingers over every detail of the beloved's body. His poems shock and inspire; they move to tears and generate anger-just as biblical psalms do. Often they capture the spirit of the original, but sometimes they fail. The former outweighs the latter by far.

Two examples of the former category will illustrate the power of Wieder's poetry. Here is his rendering of Psalm 15, which he entitles "Barely."

The minimum?/Say what you mean./Do what you say./
Point no finger at another./Welcome strangers./Not strange dealers./
Never waver./Feed the hungry./Charge no interest: or/The minimum.

Psalm 67 takes the following form.

If dust stays dry, and clouds bring only wind,
Then people dread the sunrise. Morning hymns
Sound hollow. Not for us. We follow seed
With hope and harvest grain with thanks. God
Made fields to produce. God led us, when
We could not remember what believing was,
With promised land, and fed us in the waste.
A single idea and the name Jacob are all that link Wieder's rendering of Psalm 24 with the original.
Jacob lay down in the waste
And slept, dreamed, woke, and shook, and saw
The ground he stood on had a name.
Currents on the open ocean, wells
Below blank sand, magnetic concentrations
Cloaked by ice, deep-space ionic winds:
No where is empty, full with names
For namelessness. Get up. The door
Can never shut. Any door lets angels
Go and come.

Reflecting on Jacob's dream in Gen 28:10-17 has inspired this poem, not the marvelous psalm it is supposed to interpret. In a similar view, I have allowed Gen 22:1-19 to evoke these words, titled "Estrangement."

The familiar voice that bids me
go to an unknown mountain
pierces my heart but stays the knife
in a trembling hand.
The deed's undone,
yet the unspeakable lingers
between me and Sarah,
Isaac and his dad,
the three of us and that voice,
suddenly alien.

For me, Wieder opens a door to understanding Psalms better than before. Anyone who appreciates poetry will be moved by the power of Words to God's Music .

James L. Crenshaw
Divinity School
Duke University